Tuesday, April 30, 2002
County’s Newest Judge Sworn In, Promises to Protect Rights
By KENNETH OFGANG
Vincent Okamoto was sworn in as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge yesterday by Gov. Gray Davis and pledged to use his office to protect human rights.
The internment of Japanese immigrants in World War II left lasting scars in the memories of his family and the rest of the 120,000 internees, Okamoto told friends, family members, and public officials.
“I will do my utmost to make certain that there will never again be such an injustice to any person or any group,” Okamoto, a decorated Vietnam veteran who was born in a camp in Arizona, pledged after the governor administered the oath at the Nisei Veterans Hall in Gardena.
The jurist is only the fourth person out of about 190 Davis judicial appointees to be sworn in by the governor. The other were California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, Presiding Court of Appeal Justice Candace Cooper of this district’s Div. Eight, and Orange Superior Court Judge Nho Trong Nguyen, who attended yesterday’s ceremony.
Superior Court Presiding Judge James Bascue, who described Okamoto, a former colleague in the District Attorney’s Office, as “ a very special person,” served as master of ceremonies. Other speakers included District Attorney Steve Cooley and U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter of the Central District of California.
Cooley, who studied with Okamoto during law school and worked with him when they were prosecutors in Juvenile Court 30 years ago, described the appointee as “a very real person, a very good person,” before turning to the governor to tell him he had picked “a real winner here.”
Hatter, who taught Okamoto and Cooley at USC’s law school, read off a list of the new judge’s accomplishments, including being featured in “Looking Like the Enemy,” a documentary about the military service of Asian Americans in Korea and Vietnam.
Okamoto’s successes are all the more remarkable given his origin as “a victim of one of the worst…crimes ever committed against American citizens,” Hatter said, referring to the internment.
“I congratulate the governor and [Judicial Appointments] Secretary [Burt] Pines for giving us one of the finest jurists this county will ever see,” Hatter added.
Bascue took the occasion to note that Davis has now appointed 44 judges to the county trial bench, calling them “the highest quality judicial officers we have ever seen as a group.”
In his own remarks, Okamoto, 58, described the internment and the Vietnam War as the defining experiences of his life. He spoke of how his father’s sense of self-esteem was crushed by the loss of everything he had worked for and his feelings of helplessness at his inability to protect his family from the harshness of camp life.
“The injuries sustained there lingered long after the last internees came home,” he commented.
Vietnam, he said, was a grim reminder of the consequences when guns, rather than laws, are the instruments of power. “Everyday, I witnesses life without law,” he recalled.
“Regrettably, the reign of terror…was not unique to Vietnam,” he added. The events of Sept. 11, and the daily news from Afghanistan and the Middle East, he said, have heightened his “appreciation and respect for our legal system.”
Okamoto thanked a number of individuals who aided his career, including the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented his hometown of Gardena and appointed him to his first public office, as a member of the county Vietnam Veterans Commission.
The supervisor’s son, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, attended the ceremony, as did State Board of Equalization member John Chiang, Gardena Mayor Terrence Terrauchi, Assemblyman George Nakano, D-Torrance, members of the Gardena and Torrance city councils, and several past and present judges, prosecutors, and deputy public defenders.
Okamoto worked with James Hahn when the latter was city attorney. The new judge and his law firm, Okamoto, Wasserman & Torii, served as outside counsel to the city in its $400 million suit against Kajima Engineering and Construction, Inc. for alleged fraud and mismanagement in connection with the repair of the Badger Avenue Bridge at the Port of Los Angeles.
Okamoto spent the first five years of his legal career in the District Attorney’s Office prosecuting misdemeanor and felony cases, including 11 murder trials in adult or juvenile court.
He then spent eight years practicing business and corporate law, family law, personal injury and criminal law until 1986, when he became the founding chairman and chief executive officer of Pacific Heritage Bank.
The bank, which he left in 1995, became one of the largest minority-controlled financial institutions in the United States.
While a deputy district attorney, he ran for and was elected to the Gardena City Council, serving one term..
Davis noted that Okamoto was “the highest decorated Japanese American to survive the [Vietnam] War.” He is president of the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee and has served on the board of the Japanese American Bar Association.
Davis yesterday also named two newly elected judges to the courts to which they were elected, enabling them to take office now rather than have to wait until January. They are State Board of Equalization Senior Tax Counsel Kathleen O’Connor, who won 65 percent of the vote in her bid for the Yuba Superior Court, and Deputy District Attorney Roger A. Luebs, unopposed for a seat on the Riverside Superior Court.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company